The fire illuminating this room, reader, is such as, if you be a southern, you do not often see burning on the hearth of a private apartment. It is a clear, hot coal fire, heaped high in the ample chimney. Mr. Yorke will have such fires even in warm summer weather. He sits beside it with a book in his hand, a little round stand at his elbow supporting a candle; but he is not reading—he is watching his children. Opposite to him sits his lady—a personage whom I might describe minutely, but I feel no vocation to the task. I see her, though, very plainly before me—a large woman of the gravest aspect, care on her front and on her shoulders, but not overwhelming, inevitable care, rather the sort of voluntary, exemplary cloud and burden people ever carry who deem it their duty to be gloomy. Ah, well-a-day! Mrs. Yorke had that notion, and grave as Saturn she was, morning, noon, and, night; and hard things she thought if any unhappy wight—especially of the female sex—who dared in her presence to show the light of a gay heart on a sunny countenance. In her estimation, to be mirthful was to be profane, to be cheerful was to be frivolous. She drew no distinctions. Yet she was a very good wife, a very careful mother, looked after her children unceasingly, was sincerely attached to her husband; only the worst of it was, if she could have had her will, she would not have permitted him to have any friend in the world beside herself. All his relations were insupportable to her, and she kept them at arm's length.
Mr. Yorke and she agreed perfectly well, yet he was naturally a social, hospitable man, an advocate for family unity; and in his youth, as has been said, he liked none but lively, cheerful women. Why he chose her, how they contrived to suit each other, is a problem puzzling enough, but which might soon be solved if one had time to go into the analysis of the case. Suffice it here to say that Yorke had a shadowy side as well as a sunny side to his character, and that his shadowy side found sympathy and affinity in the whole of his wife's uniformly overcast nature. For the rest, she was a strong-minded woman; never said a weak or a trite thing; took stern, democratic views of society, and rather cynical ones of human nature; considered herself perfect and safe, and the rest of the world all wrong. Her main fault was a brooding, eternal, immitigable suspicion of all men, things, creeds, and parties; this suspicion was a mist before her eyes, a false guide in her path, wherever she looked, wherever she turned.
It may be supposed that the children of such a pair were not likely to turn out quite ordinary, commonplace beings; and they were not. You see six of them, reader. The youngest is a baby on the mother's knee. It is all her own yet, and that one she has not yet begun to doubt, suspect, condemn; it derives its sustenance from her, it hangs on her, it clings to her, it loves her above everything else in the world. She is sure of that, because, as it lives by her, it cannot be otherwise, therefore she loves it.
The two next are girls, Rose and Jessy; they are both now at their father's knee; they seldom go near their mother, except when obliged to do so. Rose, the elder, is twelve years old; she is like her father—the most like him of the whole group—but it is a granite head copied in ivory; all is softened in colour and line. Yorke himself has a harsh face—his daughter's is not harsh, neither is it quite pretty; it is simple, childlike in feature; the round cheeks bloom: as to the gray eyes, they are otherwise than childlike; a serious soul lights them—a young soul yet, but it will mature, if the body lives; and neither father nor mother have a spirit to compare with it. Partaking of the essence of each, it will one day be better than either—stronger, much purer, more aspiring. Rose is a still, sometimes a stubborn, girl now. Her mother wants to make of her such a woman as she is herself—a woman of dark and dreary duties; and Rose has a mind full-set, thick-sown with the germs of ideas her mother never knew. It is agony to her often to have these ideas trampled on and repressed. She has never rebelled yet; but if hard driven, she will rebel one day, and then it will be once for all. Rose loves her father: her father does not rule her with a rod of iron; he is good to her. He sometimes fears she will not live, so bright are the sparks of intelligence which, at moments, flash from her glance and gleam in her language. This idea makes him often sadly tender to her.
He has no idea that little Jessy will die young, she is so gay and chattering, arch, original even now; passionate when provoked, but most affectionate if caressed; by turns gentle and rattling; exacting, yet generous; fearless—of her mother, for instance, whose irrationally hard and strict rule she has often defied—yet reliant on any who will help her. Jessy, with her little piquant face, engaging prattle, and winning ways, is made to be a pet, and her father's pet she accordingly is. It is odd that the doll should resemble her mother feature by feature, as Rose resembles her father, and yet the physiognomy—how different!
Mr. Yorke, if a magic mirror were now held before you, and if therein were shown you your two daughters as they will be twenty years from this night, what would you think? The magic mirror is here: you shall learn their destinies—and first that of your little life, Jessy.
Do you know this place? No, you never saw it; but you recognize the nature of these trees, this foliage—the cypress, the willow, the yew. Stone crosses like these are not unfamiliar to you, nor are these dim garlands of everlasting flowers. Here is the place—green sod and a gray marble headstone. Jessy sleeps below. She lived through an April day; much loved was she, much loving. She often, in her brief life, shed tears, she had frequent sorrows; she smiled between, gladdening whatever saw her. Her death was tranquil and happy in Rose's guardian arms, for Rose had been her stay and defence through many trials. The dying and the watching English girls were at that hour alone in a foreign country, and the soil of that country gave Jessy a grave.
Now, behold Rose two years later. The crosses and garlands looked strange, but the hills and woods of this landscape look still stranger. This, indeed, is far from England; remote must be the shores which wear that wild, luxuriant aspect. This is some virgin solitude. Unknown birds flutter round the skirts of that forest; no European river this, on whose banks Rose sits thinking. The little quiet Yorkshire girl is a lonely emigrant in some region of the southern hemisphere. Will she ever come back?
The three eldest of the family are all boys—Matthew, Mark, and Martin. They are seated together in that corner, engaged in some game. Observe their three heads: much alike at a first glance; at a second, different; at a third, contrasted. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, red-cheeked are the whole trio; small English features they all possess; all own a blended resemblance to sire and mother; and yet a distinctive physiognomy, mark of a separate character, belongs to each.
I shall not say much about Matthew, the first-born of the house, though it is impossible to avoid gazing at him long, and conjecturing what qualities that visage hides or indicates. He is no plain-looking boy: that jet-black hair, white brow, high-coloured cheek, those quick, dark eyes, are good points in their way. How is it that, look as long as you will, there is but one object in the room, and that the most sinister, to which Matthew's face seems to bear an affinity, and of which, ever and anon, it reminds you strangely—the eruption of Vesuvius? Flame and shadow seem the component parts of that lad's soul—no daylight in it, and no sunshine, and no pure, cool moonbeam ever shone there. He has an English frame, but, apparently, not an English mind—you would say, an Italian stiletto in a sheath of British workmanship. He is crossed in the game—look at his scowl. Mr. Yorke sees it, and what does he say? In a low voice he pleads, "Mark and Martin, don't anger your brother." And this is ever the tone adopted by both parents. Theoretically, they decry partiality—no rights of primogeniture are to be allowed in that house; but Matthew is never to be vexed, never to be opposed; they avert provocation from him as assiduously as they would avert fire from a barrel of gunpowder. "Concede, conciliate," is their motto wherever he is concerned. The republicans are fast making a tyrant of their own flesh and blood. This the younger scions know and feel, and at heart they all rebel against the injustice. They cannot read their parents' motives; they only see the difference of treatment. The dragon's teeth are already sown amongst Mr. Yorke's young olive-branches; discord will one day be the harvest.
Mark is a bonny-looking boy, the most regular-featured of the family. He is exceedingly calm; his smile is shrewd; he can say the driest, most cutting things in the quietest of tones. Despite his tranquillity, a somewhat heavy brow speaks temper, and reminds you that the smoothest waters are not always the safest. Besides, he is too still, unmoved, phlegmatic, to be happy. Life will never have much joy in it for Mark. By the time he is five-and-twenty he will wonder why people ever laugh, and think all fools who seem merry. Poetry will not exist for Mark, either in literature or in life; its best effusions will sound to him mere rant and jargon. Enthusiasm will be his aversion and contempt. Mark will have no youth; while he looks juvenile and blooming, he will be already middle-aged in mind. His body is now fourteen years of age, but his soul is already thirty.
Martin, the youngest of the three, owns another nature. Life may, or may not, be brief for him, but it will certainly be brilliant. He will pass through all its illusions, half believe in them, wholly enjoy them, then outlive them. That boy is not handsome—not so handsome as either of his brothers. He is plain; there is a husk upon him, a dry shell, and he will wear it till he is near twenty, then he will put it off. About that period he will make himself handsome. He will wear uncouth manners till that age, perhaps homely garments; but the chrysalis will retain the power of transfiguring itself into the butterfly, and such transfiguration will, in due season, take place. For a space he will be vain, probably a downright puppy, eager for pleasure and desirous of admiration, athirst, too, for knowledge. He will want all that the world can give him, both of enjoyment and lore; he will, perhaps, take deep draughts at each fount. That thirst satisfied, what next? I know not. Martin might be a remarkable man. Whether he will or not, the seer is powerless to predict: on that subject there has been no open vision.
Take Mr. Yorke's family in the aggregate: there is as much mental power in those six young heads, as much originality, as much activity and vigour of brain, as—divided amongst half a dozen commonplace broods—would give to each rather more than an average amount of sense and capacity. Mr. Yorke knows this, and is proud of his race. Yorkshire has such families here and there amongst her hills and wolds—peculiar, racy, vigorous; of good blood and strong brain; turbulent somewhat in the pride of their strength, and intractable in the force of their native powers; wanting polish, wanting consideration, wanting docility, but sound, spirited, and true-bred as the eagle on the cliff or the steed in the steppe.
A low tap is heard at the parlour door; the boys have been making such a noise over their game, and little Jessy, besides, has been singing so sweet a Scotch song to her father—who delights in Scotch and Italian songs, and has taught his musical little daughter some of the best—that the ring at the outer door was not observed.
"Come in," says Mrs. Yorke, in that conscientiously constrained and solemnized voice of hers, which ever modulates itself to a funereal dreariness of tone, though the subject it is exercised upon be but to give orders for the making of a pudding in the kitchen, to bid the boys hang up their caps in the hall, or to call the girls to their sewing—"come in!" And in came Robert Moore.
Moore's habitual gravity, as well as his abstemiousness (for the case of spirit decanters is never ordered up when he pays an evening visit), has so far recommended him to Mrs. Yorke that she has not yet made him the subject of private animadversions with her husband; she has not yet found out that he is hampered by a secret intrigue which prevents him from marrying, or that he is a wolf in sheep's clothing—discoveries which she made at an early date after marriage concerning most of her husband's bachelor friends, and excluded them from her board accordingly; which part of her conduct, indeed, might be said to have its just and sensible as well as its harsh side.
"Well, is it you?" she says to Mr. Moore, as he comes up to her and gives his hand. "What are you roving about at this time of night for? You should be at home."
"Can a single man be said to have a home, madam?" he asks.
"Pooh!" says Mrs. Yorke, who despises conventional smoothness quite as much as her husband does, and practises it as little, and whose plain speaking on all occasions is carried to a point calculated, sometimes, to awaken admiration, but oftener alarm—"pooh! you need not talk nonsense to me; a single man can have a home if he likes. Pray, does not your sister make a home for you?"
"Not she," joined in Mr. Yorke. "Hortense is an honest lass. But when I was Robert's age I had five or six sisters, all as decent and proper as she is; but you see, Hesther, for all that it did not hinder me from looking out for a wife."
"And sorely he has repented marrying me," added Mrs. Yorke, who liked occasionally to crack a dry jest against matrimony, even though it should be at her own expense. "He has repented it in sackcloth and ashes, Robert Moore, as you may well believe when you see his punishment" (here she pointed to her children). "Who would burden themselves with such a set of great, rough lads as those, if they could help it? It is not only bringing them into the world, though that is bad enough, but they are all to feed, to clothe, to rear, to settle in life. Young sir, when you feel tempted to marry, think of our four sons and two daughters, and look twice before you leap."
"I am not tempted now, at any rate. I think these are not times for marrying or giving in marriage."
A lugubrious sentiment of this sort was sure to obtain Mrs. Yorke's approbation. She nodded and groaned acquiescence; but in a minute she said, "I make little account of the wisdom of a Solomon of your age; it will be upset by the first fancy that crosses you. Meantime, sit down, sir. You can talk, I suppose, as well sitting as standing?"
This was her way of inviting her guest to take a chair. He had no sooner obeyed her than little Jessy jumped from her father's knee and ran into Mr. Moore's arms, which were very promptly held out to receive her.
"You talk of marrying him," said she to her mother, quite indignantly, as she was lifted lightly to his knee, "and he is married now, or as good. He promised that I should be his wife last summer, the first time he saw me in my new white frock and blue sash. Didn't he, father?" (These children were not accustomed to say papa and mamma; their mother would allow no such "namby-pamby.")
"Ay, my little lassie, he promised; I'll bear witness. But make him say it over again now, Jessy. Such as he are only false loons."
"He is not false. He is too bonny to be false," said Jessy, looking up to her tall sweetheart with the fullest confidence in his faith.
"Bonny!" cried Mr. Yorke. "That's the reason that he should be, and proof that he is, a scoundrel."
"But he looks too sorrowful to be false," here interposed a quiet voice from behind the father's chair. "If he was always laughing, I should think he forgot promises soon, but Mr. Moore never laughs."
"Your sentimental buck is the greatest cheat of all, Rose," remarked Mr. Yorke.
"He's not sentimental," said Rose.
Mr. Moore turned to her with a little surprise, smiling at the same time.
"How do you know I am not sentimental, Rose?"
"Because I heard a lady say you were not."
"Voila, qui devient interessant!" exclaimed Mr. Yorke, hitching his chair nearer the fire. "A lady! That has quite a romantic twang. We must guess who it is.—Rosy, whisper the name low to your father. Don't let him hear."
"Rose, don't be too forward to talk," here interrupted Mrs. Yorke, in her usual kill-joy fashion, "nor Jessy either. It becomes all children, especially girls, to be silent in the presence of their elders."
"Why have we tongues, then?" asked Jessy pertly; while Rose only looked at her mother with an expression that seemed to say she should take that maxim in and think it over at her leisure. After two minutes' grave deliberation, she asked, "And why especially girls, mother?"
"Firstly, because I say so; and secondly, because discretion and reserve are a girl's best wisdom."
"My dear madam," observed Moore, "what you say is excellent—it reminds me, indeed, of my dear sister's observations; but really it is not applicable to these little ones. Let Rose and Jessy talk to me freely, or my chief pleasure in coming here is gone. I like their prattle; it does me good."
"Does it not?" asked Jessy. "More good than if the rough lads came round you.—You call them rough, mother, yourself."
"Yes, mignonne, a thousand times more good. I have rough lads enough about me all day long, poulet."
"There are plenty of people," continued she, "who take notice of the boys. All my uncles and aunts seem to think their nephews better than their nieces, and when gentlemen come here to dine, it is always Matthew, and Mark, and Martin that are talked to, and never Rose and me. Mr. Moore is our friend, and we'll keep him.—But mind, Rose, he's not so much your friend as he is mine. He is my particular acquaintance; remember that!" And she held up her small hand with an admonitory gesture.
Rose was quite accustomed to be admonished by that small hand. Her will daily bent itself to that of the impetuous little Jessy. She was guided, overruled by Jessy in a thousand things. On all occasions of show and pleasure Jessy took the lead, and Rose fell quietly into the background; whereas, when the disagreeables of life—its work and privations—were in question, Rose instinctively took upon her, in addition to her own share, what she could of her sister's. Jessy had already settled it in her mind that she, when she was old enough, was to be married; Rose, she decided, must be an old maid, to live with her, look after her children, keep her house. This state of things is not uncommon between two sisters, where one is plain and the other pretty; but in this case, if there was a difference in external appearance, Rose had the advantage: her face was more regular-featured than that of the piquant little Jessy. Jessy, however, was destined to possess, along with sprightly intelligence and vivacious feeling, the gift of fascination, the power to charm when, where, and whom she would. Rose was to have a fine, generous soul, a noble intellect profoundly cultivated, a heart as true as steel, but the manner to attract was not to be hers.
"Now, Rose, tell me the name of this lady who denied that I was sentimental," urged Mr. Moore.
Rose had no idea of tantalization, or she would have held him a while in doubt. She answered briefly, "I can't. I don't know her name."
"Describe her to me. What was she like? Where did you see her?"
"When Jessy and I went to spend the day at Whinbury with Kate and Susan Pearson, who were just come home from school, there was a party at Mrs. Pearson's, and some grown-up ladies were sitting in a corner of the drawing-room talking about you."
"Did you know none of them?"
"Hannah, and Harriet, and Dora, and Mary Sykes."
"Good. Were they abusing me, Rosy?"
"Some of them were. They called you a misanthrope. I remember the word. I looked for it in the dictionary when I came home. It means a man-hater."
"Hannah Sykes said you were a solemn puppy."
"Better!" cried Mr. Yorke, laughing. "Oh, excellent! Hannah! that's the one with the red hair—a fine girl, but half-witted."
"She has wit enough for me, it appears," said Moore. "A solemn puppy, indeed! Well, Rose, go on."
"Miss Pearson said she believed there was a good deal of affectation about you, and that with your dark hair and pale face you looked to her like some sort of a sentimental noodle."
Again Mr. Yorke laughed. Mrs. Yorke even joined in this time. "You see in what esteem you are held behind your back," said she; "yet I believe that Miss Pearson would like to catch you. She set her cap at you when you first came into the country, old as she is."
"And who contradicted her, Rosy?" inquired Moore.
"A lady whom I don't know, because she never visits here, though I see her every Sunday at church. She sits in the pew near the pulpit. I generally look at her, instead of looking at my prayer-book, for she is like a picture in our dining-room, that woman with the dove in her hand—at least she has eyes like it, and a nose too, a straight nose, that makes all her face look, somehow, what I call clear."
"And you don't know her!" exclaimed Jessy, in a tone of exceeding surprise. "That's so like Rose. Mr. Moore, I often wonder in what sort of a world my sister lives. I am sure she does not live all her time in this. One is continually finding out that she is quite ignorant of some little matter which everybody else knows. To think of her going solemnly to church every Sunday, and looking all service-time at one particular person, and never so much as asking that person's name. She means Caroline Helstone, the rector's niece. I remember all about it. Miss Helstone was quite angry with Anne Pearson. She said, 'Robert Moore is neither affected nor sentimental; you mistake his character utterly, or rather not one of you here knows anything about it.' Now, shall I tell you what she is like? I can tell what people are like, and how they are dressed, better than Rose can."
"Let us hear."
"She is nice; she is fair; she has a pretty white slender throat; she has long curls, not stiff ones—they hang loose and soft, their colour is brown but not dark; she speaks quietly, with a clear tone; she never makes a bustle in moving; she often wears a gray silk dress; she is neat all over—her gowns, and her shoes, and her gloves always fit her. She is what I call a lady, and when I am as tall as she is, I mean to be like her. Shall I suit you if I am? Will you really marry me?"
Moore stroked Jessy's hair. For a minute he seemed as if he would draw her nearer to him, but instead he put her a little farther off.
"Oh! you won't have me? You push me away."
"Why, Jessy, you care nothing about me. You never come to see me now at the Hollow."
"Because you don't ask me."
Hereupon Mr. Moore gave both the little girls an invitation to pay him a visit next day, promising that, as he was going to Stilbro' in the morning, he would buy them each a present, of what nature he would not then declare, but they must come and see. Jessy was about to reply, when one of the boys unexpectedly broke in,—
"I know that Miss Helstone you have all been palavering about. She's an ugly girl. I hate her. I hate all womenites. I wonder what they were made for."
"Martin!" said his father, for Martin it was. The lad only answered by turning his cynical young face, half-arch, half-truculent, towards the paternal chair. "Martin, my lad, thou'rt a swaggering whelp now; thou wilt some day be an outrageous puppy. But stick to those sentiments of thine. See, I'll write down the words now i' my pocket-book." (The senior took out a morocco-covered book, and deliberately wrote therein.) "Ten years hence, Martin, if thou and I be both alive at that day, I'll remind thee of that speech."
"I'll say the same then. I mean always to hate women. They're such dolls; they do nothing but dress themselves finely, and go swimming about to be admired. I'll never marry. I'll be a bachelor."
"Stick to it! stick to it!—Hesther" (addressing his wife), "I was like him when I was his age—a regular misogamist; and, behold! by the time I was three-and-twenty—being then a tourist in France and Italy, and the Lord knows where—I curled my hair every night before I went to bed, and wore a ring i' my ear, and would have worn one i' my nose if it had been the fashion, and all that I might make myself pleasing and charming to the ladies. Martin will do the like."
"Will I? Never! I've more sense. What a guy you were, father! As to dressing, I make this vow: I'll never dress more finely than as you see me at present.—Mr. Moore, I'm clad in blue cloth from top to toe, and they laugh at me, and call me sailor at the grammar-school. I laugh louder at them, and say they are all magpies and parrots, with their coats one colour, and their waistcoats another, and their trousers a third. I'll always wear blue cloth, and nothing but blue cloth. It is beneath a human being's dignity to dress himself in parti-coloured garments."
"Ten years hence, Martin, no tailor's shop will have choice of colours varied enough for thy exacting taste; no perfumer's stores essences exquisite enough for thy fastidious senses."
Martin looked disdain, but vouchsafed no further reply. Meantime Mark, who for some minutes had been rummaging amongst a pile of books on a side-table, took the word. He spoke in a peculiarly slow, quiet voice, and with an expression of still irony in his face not easy to describe.
"Mr. Moore," said he, "you think perhaps it was a compliment on Miss Caroline Helstone's part to say you were not sentimental. I thought you appeared confused when my sisters told you the words, as if you felt flattered. You turned red, just like a certain vain little lad at our school, who always thinks proper to blush when he gets a rise in the class. For your benefit, Mr. Moore, I've been looking up the word 'sentimental' in the dictionary, and I find it to mean 'tinctured with sentiment.' On examining further, 'sentiment' is explained to be thought, idea, notion. A sentimental man, then, is one who has thoughts, ideas, notions; an unsentimental man is one destitute of thought, idea, or notion."
And Mark stopped. He did not smile, he did not look round for admiration. He had said his say, and was silent.
"Ma foi! mon ami," observed Mr. Moore to Yorke, "ce sont vraiment des enfants terribles, que les votres!"
Rose, who had been listening attentively to Mark's speech, replied to him, "There are different kinds of thoughts, ideas, and notions," said she, "good and bad. Sentimental must refer to the bad, or Miss Helstone must have taken it in that sense, for she was not blaming Mr. Moore; she was defending him."
"That's my kind little advocate!" said Moore, taking Rose's hand.
"She was defending him," repeated Rose, "as I should have done had I been in her place, for the other ladies seemed to speak spitefully."
"Ladies always do speak spitefully," observed Martin. "It is the nature of womenites to be spiteful."
Matthew now, for the first time, opened his lips. "What a fool Martin is, to be always gabbling about what he does not understand!"
"It is my privilege, as a freeman, to gabble on whatever subject I like," responded Martin.
"You use it, or rather abuse it, to such an extent," rejoined the elder brother, "that you prove you ought to have been a slave."
"A slave! a slave! That to a Yorke, and from a Yorke! This fellow," he added, standing up at the table, and pointing across it to Matthew—"this fellow forgets, what every cottier in Briarfield knows, that all born of our house have that arched instep under which water can flow—proof that there has not been a slave of the blood for three hundred years."
"Mountebank!" said Matthew.
"Lads, be silent!" exclaimed Mr. Yorke.—"Martin, you are a mischief-maker. There would have been no disturbance but for you."
"Indeed! Is that correct? Did I begin, or did Matthew? Had I spoken to him when he accused me of gabbling like a fool?"
"A presumptuous fool!" repeated Matthew.
Here Mrs. Yorke commenced rocking herself—rather a portentous movement with her, as it was occasionally followed, especially when Matthew was worsted in a conflict, by a fit of hysterics.
"I don't see why I should bear insolence from Matthew Yorke, or what right he has to use bad language to me," observed Martin.
"He has no right, my lad; but forgive your brother until seventy-and-seven times," said Mr. Yorke soothingly.
"Always alike, and theory and practice always adverse!" murmured Martin as he turned to leave the room.
"Where art thou going, my son?" asked the father.
"Somewhere where I shall be safe from insult, if in this house I can find any such place."
Matthew laughed very insolently. Martin threw a strange look at him, and trembled through all his slight lad's frame; but he restrained himself.
"I suppose there is no objection to my withdrawing?" he inquired.
"No. Go, my lad; but remember not to bear malice."
Martin went, and Matthew sent another insolent laugh after him. Rose, lifting her fair head from Moore's shoulder, against which, for a moment, it had been resting, said, as she directed a steady gaze to Matthew, "Martin is grieved, and you are glad; but I would rather be Martin than you. I dislike your nature."
Here Mr. Moore, by way of averting, or at least escaping, a scene—which a sob from Mrs. Yorke warned him was likely to come on—rose, and putting Jessy off his knee, he kissed her and Rose, reminding them, at the same time, to be sure and come to the Hollow in good time to-morrow afternoon; then, having taken leave of his hostess, he said to Mr. Yorke, "May I speak a word with you?" and was followed by him from the room. Their brief conference took place in the hall.
"Have you employment for a good workman?" asked Moore.
"A nonsense question in these times, when you know that every master has many good workmen to whom he cannot give full employment."
"You must oblige me by taking on this man, if possible."
"My lad, I can take on no more hands to oblige all England."
"It does not signify; I must find him a place somewhere."
"Who is he?"
"I know William. A right-down honest man is William."
"He has been out of work three months. He has a large family. We are sure they cannot live without wages. He was one of the deputation of cloth-dressers who came to me this morning to complain and threaten. William did not threaten. He only asked me to give them rather more time—to make my changes more slowly. You know I cannot do that: straitened on all sides as I am, I have nothing for it but to push on. I thought it would be idle to palaver long with them. I sent them away, after arresting a rascal amongst them, whom I hope to transport—a fellow who preaches at the chapel yonder sometimes."
"Not Moses Barraclough?"
"Ah! you've arrested him? Good! Then out of a scoundrel you're going to make a martyr. You've done a wise thing."
"I've done a right thing. Well, the short and the long of it is, I'm determined to get Farren a place, and I reckon on you to give him one."
"This is cool, however!" exclaimed Mr. Yorke. "What right have you to reckon on me to provide for your dismissed workmen? What do I know about your Farrens and your Williams? I've heard he's an honest man, but am I to support all the honest men in Yorkshire? You may say that would be no great charge to undertake; but great or little, I'll none of it."
"Come, Mr. Yorke, what can you find for him to do?"
"I find! You'll make me use language I'm not accustomed to use. I wish you would go home. Here is the door; set off."
Moore sat down on one of the hall chairs.
"You can't give him work in your mill—good; but you have land. Find him some occupation on your land, Mr. Yorke."
"Bob, I thought you cared nothing about our lourdauds de paysans. I don't understand this change."
"I do. The fellow spoke to me nothing but truth and sense. I answered him just as roughly as I did the rest, who jabbered mere gibberish. I couldn't make distinctions there and then. His appearance told what he had gone through lately clearer than his words; but where is the use of explaining? Let him have work."
"Let him have it yourself. If you are so very much in earnest, strain a point."
"If there was a point left in my affairs to strain, I would strain it till it cracked again; but I received letters this morning which showed me pretty clearly where I stand, and it is not far off the end of the plank. My foreign market, at any rate, is gorged. If there is no change—if there dawns no prospect of peace—if the Orders in Council are not, at least, suspended, so as to open our way in the West—I do not know where I am to turn. I see no more light than if I were sealed in a rock, so that for me to pretend to offer a man a livelihood would be to do a dishonest thing."
"Come, let us take a turn on the front. It is a starlight night," said Mr. Yorke.
They passed out, closing the front door after them, and side by side paced the frost-white pavement to and fro.
"Settle about Farren at once," urged Mr. Moore. "You have large fruit-gardens at Yorke Mills. He is a good gardener. Give him work there."
"Well, so be it. I'll send for him to-morrow, and we'll see. And now, my lad, you're concerned about the condition of your affairs?"
"Yes, a second failure—which I may delay, but which, at this moment, I see no way finally to avert—would blight the name of Moore completely; and you are aware I had fine intentions of paying off every debt and re-establishing the old firm on its former basis."
"You want capital—that's all you want."
"Yes; but you might as well say that breath is all a dead man wants to live."
"I know—I know capital is not to be had for the asking; and if you were a married man, and had a family, like me, I should think your case pretty nigh desperate; but the young and unencumbered have chances peculiar to themselves. I hear gossip now and then about your being on the eve of marriage with this miss and that; but I suppose it is none of it true?"
"You may well suppose that. I think I am not in a position to be dreaming of marriage. Marriage! I cannot bear the word; it sounds so silly and utopian. I have settled it decidedly that marriage and love are superfluities, intended only for the rich, who live at ease, and have no need to take thought for the morrow; or desperations—the last and reckless joy of the deeply wretched, who never hope to rise out of the slough of their utter poverty."
"I should not think so if I were circumstanced as you are. I should think I could very likely get a wife with a few thousands, who would suit both me and my affairs."
"I wonder where?"
"Would you try if you had a chance?"
"I don't know. It depends on—in short, it depends on many things."
"Would you take an old woman?"
"I'd rather break stones on the road."
"So would I. Would you take an ugly one?"
"Bah! I hate ugliness and delight in beauty. My eyes and heart, Yorke, take pleasure in a sweet, young, fair face, as they are repelled by a grim, rugged, meagre one. Soft delicate lines and hues please, harsh ones prejudice me. I won't have an ugly wife."
"Not if she were rich?"
"Not if she were dressed in gems. I could not love—I could not fancy—I could not endure her. My taste must have satisfaction, or disgust would break out in despotism, or worse—freeze to utter iciness."
"What! Bob, if you married an honest, good-natured, and wealthy lass, though a little hard-favoured, couldn't you put up with the high cheek-bones, the rather wide mouth, and reddish hair?"
"I'll never try, I tell you. Grace at least I will have, and youth and symmetry—yes, and what I call beauty."
"And poverty, and a nursery full of bairns you can neither clothe nor feed, and very soon an anxious, faded mother; and then bankruptcy, discredit—a life-long struggle."
"Let me alone, Yorke."
"If you are romantic, Robert, and especially if you are already in love, it is of no use talking."
"I am not romantic. I am stripped of romance as bare as the white tenters in that field are of cloth."
"Always use such figures of speech, lad; I can understand them. And there is no love affair to disturb your judgment?"
"I thought I had said enough on that subject before. Love for me? Stuff!"
"Well, then, if you are sound both in heart and head, there is no reason why you should not profit by a good chance if it offers; therefore, wait and see."
"You are quite oracular, Yorke."
"I think I am a bit i' that line. I promise ye naught and I advise ye naught; but I bid ye keep your heart up, and be guided by circumstances."
"My namesake the physician's almanac could not speak more guardedly."
"In the meantime, I care naught about ye, Robert Moore: ye are nothing akin to me or mine, and whether ye lose or find a fortune it maks no difference to me. Go home, now. It has stricken ten. Miss Hortense will be wondering where ye are."
Time wore on, and spring matured. The surface of England began to look pleasant: her fields grew green, her hills fresh, her gardens blooming; but at heart she was no better. Still her poor were wretched, still their employers were harassed. Commerce, in some of its branches, seemed threatened with paralysis, for the war continued; England's blood was shed and her wealth lavished—all, it seemed, to attain most inadequate ends. Some tidings there were indeed occasionally of successes in the Peninsula, but these came in slowly; long intervals occurred between, in which no note was heard but the insolent self-felicitations of Bonaparte on his continued triumphs. Those who suffered from the results of the war felt this tedious, and, as they thought, hopeless struggle against what their fears or their interests taught them to regard as an invincible power, most insufferable. They demanded peace on any terms. Men like Yorke and Moore—and there were thousands whom the war placed where it placed them, shuddering on the verge of bankruptcy—insisted on peace with the energy of desperation.
They held meetings, they made speeches, they got up petitions to extort this boon; on what terms it was made they cared not.
All men, taken singly, are more or less selfish; and taken in bodies, they are intensely so. The British merchant is no exception to this rule: the mercantile classes illustrate it strikingly. These classes certainly think too exclusively of making money; they are too oblivious of every national consideration but that of extending England's—that is, their own—commerce. Chivalrous feeling, disinterestedness, pride in honour, is too dead in their hearts. A land ruled by them alone would too often make ignominious submission—not at all from the motives Christ teaches, but rather from those Mammon instils. During the late war, the tradesmen of England would have endured buffets from the French on the right cheek and on the left; their cloak they would have given to Napoleon, and then have politely offered him their coat also, nor would they have withheld their waistcoat if urged; they would have prayed permission only to retain their one other garment, for the sake of the purse in its pocket. Not one spark of spirit, not one symptom of resistance, would they have shown till the hand of the Corsican bandit had grasped that beloved purse; then, perhaps, transfigured at once into British bulldogs, they would have sprung at the robber's throat, and there they would have fastened, and there hung, inveterate, insatiable, till the treasure had been restored. Tradesmen, when they speak against war, always profess to hate it because it is a bloody and barbarous proceeding. You would think, to hear them talk, that they are peculiarly civilized—especially gentle and kindly of disposition to their fellow-men. This is not the case. Many of them are extremely narrow and cold-hearted; have no good feeling for any class but their own; are distant, even hostile, to all others; call them useless; seem to question their right to exist; seem to grudge them the very air they breathe, and to think the circumstance of their eating, drinking, and living in decent houses quite unjustifiable. They do not know what others do in the way of helping, pleasing, or teaching their race; they will not trouble themselves to inquire. Whoever is not in trade is accused of eating the bread of idleness, of passing a useless existence. Long may it be ere England really becomes a nation of shop-keepers!
We have already said that Moore was no self-sacrificing patriot, and we have also explained what circumstances rendered him specially prone to confine his attention and efforts to the furtherance of his individual interest; accordingly, when he felt himself urged a second time to the brink of ruin, none struggled harder than he against the influences which would have thrust him over. What he could do towards stirring agitation in the north against the war he did, and he instigated others whose money and connections gave them more power than he possessed. Sometimes, by flashes, he felt there was little reason in the demands his party made on Government. When he heard of all Europe threatened by Bonaparte, and of all Europe arming to resist him; when he saw Russia menaced, and beheld Russia rising, incensed and stern, to defend her frozen soil, her wild provinces of serfs, her dark native despotism, from the tread, the yoke, the tyranny of a foreign victor—he knew that England, a free realm, could not then depute her sons to make concessions and propose terms to the unjust, grasping French leader. When news came from time to time of the movements of that MAN then representing England in the Peninsula, of his advance from success to success—that advance so deliberate but so unswerving, so circumspect but so certain, so "unhasting" but so "unresting;" when he read Lord Wellington's own dispatches in the columns of the newspapers, documents written by modesty to the dictation of truth—Moore confessed at heart that a power was with the troops of Britain, of that vigilant, enduring, genuine, unostentatious sort, which must win victory to the side it led, in the end. In the end! But that end, he thought, was yet far off; and meantime he, Moore, as an individual, would be crushed, his hopes ground to dust. It was himself he had to care for, his hopes he had to pursue; and he would fulfil his destiny.
He fulfilled it so vigorously that ere long he came to a decisive rupture with his old Tory friend the rector. They quarrelled at a public meeting, and afterwards exchanged some pungent letters in the newspapers. Mr. Helstone denounced Moore as a Jacobin, ceased to see him, would not even speak to him when they met. He intimated also to his niece, very distinctly, that her communications with Hollow's Cottage must for the present cease; she must give up taking French lessons. The language, he observed, was a bad and frivolous one at the best, and most of the works it boasted were bad and frivolous, highly injurious in their tendency to weak female minds. He wondered (he remarked parenthetically) what noodle first made it the fashion to teach women French. Nothing was more improper for them. It was like feeding a rickety child on chalk and water gruel. Caroline must give it up, and give up her cousins too. They were dangerous people.
Mr. Helstone quite expected opposition to this order; he expected tears. Seldom did he trouble himself about Caroline's movements, but a vague idea possessed him that she was fond of going to Hollow's Cottage; also he suspected that she liked Robert Moore's occasional presence at the rectory. The Cossack had perceived that whereas if Malone stepped in of an evening to make himself sociable and charming, by pinching the ears of an aged black cat, which usually shared with Miss Helstone's feet the accommodation of her footstool, or by borrowing a fowling-piece, and banging away at a tool shed door in the garden while enough of daylight remained to show that conspicuous mark, keeping the passage and sitting-room doors meantime uncomfortably open for the convenience of running in and out to announce his failures and successes with noisy brusquerie—he had observed that under such entertaining circumstances Caroline had a trick of disappearing, tripping noiselessly upstairs, and remaining invisible till called down to supper. On the other hand, when Robert Moore was the guest, though he elicited no vivacities from the cat, did nothing to it, indeed, beyond occasionally coaxing it from the stool to his knee, and there letting it purr, climb to his shoulder, and rub its head against his cheek; though there was no ear-splitting cracking off of firearms, no diffusion of sulphurous gunpowder perfume, no noise, no boasting during his stay—that still Caroline sat in the room, and seemed to find wondrous content in the stitching of Jew-basket pin-cushions and the knitting of missionary-basket socks.
She was very quiet, and Robert paid her little attention, scarcely ever addressing his discourse to her; but Mr. Helstone, not being one of those elderly gentlemen who are easily blinded—on the contrary, finding himself on all occasions extremely wide-awake—had watched them when they bade each other good-night. He had just seen their eyes meet once—only once. Some natures would have taken pleasure in the glance then surprised, because there was no harm and some delight in it. It was by no means a glance of mutual intelligence, for mutual love secrets existed not between them. There was nothing then of craft and concealment to offend: only Mr. Moore's eyes, looking into Caroline's, felt they were clear and gentle; and Caroline's eyes, encountering Mr. Moore's, confessed they were manly and searching. Each acknowledged the charm in his or her own way. Moore smiled slightly, and Caroline coloured as slightly. Mr. Helstone could, on the spot, have rated them both. They annoyed him. Why? Impossible to say. If you had asked him what Moore merited at that moment, he would have said a "horsewhip;" if you had inquired into Caroline's deserts, he would have adjudged her a box on the ear; if you had further demanded the reason of such chastisements, he would have stormed against flirtation and love-making, and vowed he would have no such folly going on under his roof.
These private considerations, combined with political reasons, fixed his resolution of separating the cousins. He announced his will to Caroline one evening as she was sitting at work near the drawing-room window. Her face was turned towards him, and the light fell full upon it. It had struck him a few minutes before that she was looking paler and quieter than she used to look. It had not escaped him either that Robert Moore's name had never, for some three weeks past, dropped from her lips; nor during the same space of time had that personage made his appearance at the rectory. Some suspicion of clandestine meetings haunted his mind. Having but an indifferent opinion of women, he always suspected them. He thought they needed constant watching. It was in a tone dryly significant he desired her to cease her daily visits to the Hollow. He expected a start, a look of depreciation. The start he saw, but it was a very slight one; no look whatever was directed to him.
"Do you hear me?" he asked.
"Of course you mean to attend to what I say?"
"And there must be no letter-scribbling to your cousin Hortense—no intercourse whatever. I do not approve of the principles of the family. They are Jacobinical."
"Very well," said Caroline quietly. She acquiesced then. There was no vexed flushing of the face, no gathering tears; the shadowy thoughtfulness which had covered her features ere Mr. Helstone spoke remained undisturbed; she was obedient.
Yes, perfectly; because the mandate coincided with her own previous judgment; because it was now become pain to her to go to Hollow's Cottage; nothing met her there but disappointment. Hope and love had quitted that little tenement, for Robert seemed to have deserted its precincts. Whenever she asked after him—which she very seldom did, since the mere utterance of his name made her face grow hot—the answer was, he was from home, or he was quite taken up with business. Hortense feared he was killing himself by application. He scarcely ever took a meal in the house; he lived in the counting-house.
At church only Caroline had the chance of seeing him, and there she rarely looked at him. It was both too much pain and too much pleasure to look—it excited too much emotion; and that it was all wasted emotion she had learned well to comprehend.
Once, on a dark, wet Sunday, when there were few people at church, and when especially certain ladies were absent, of whose observant faculties and tomahawk tongues Caroline stood in awe, she had allowed her eye to seek Robert's pew, and to rest awhile on its occupant. He was there alone. Hortense had been kept at home by prudent considerations relative to the rain and a new spring chapeau. During the sermon he sat with folded arms and eyes cast down, looking very sad and abstracted. When depressed, the very hue of his face seemed more dusk than when he smiled, and to-day cheek and forehead wore their most tintless and sober olive. By instinct Caroline knew, as she examined that clouded countenance, that his thoughts were running in no familiar or kindly channel; that they were far away, not merely from her, but from all which she could comprehend, or in which she could sympathize. Nothing that they had ever talked of together was now in his mind: he was wrapt from her by interests and responsibilities in which it was deemed such as she could have no part.
Caroline meditated in her own way on the subject; speculated on his feelings, on his life, on his fears, on his fate; mused over the mystery of "business," tried to comprehend more about it than had ever been told her—to understand its perplexities, liabilities, duties, exactions; endeavoured to realize the state of mind of a "man of business," to enter into it, feel what he would feel, aspire to what he would aspire. Her earnest wish was to see things as they were, and not to be romantic. By dint of effort she contrived to get a glimpse of the light of truth here and there, and hoped that scant ray might suffice to guide her.
"Different, indeed," she concluded, "is Robert's mental condition to mine. I think only of him; he has no room, no leisure, to think of me. The feeling called love is and has been for two years the predominant emotion of my heart—always there, always awake, always astir. Quite other feelings absorb his reflections and govern his faculties. He is rising now, going to leave the church, for service is over. Will he turn his head towards this pew? No, not once. He has not one look for me. That is hard. A kind glance would have made me happy till to-morrow. I have not got it; he would not give it; he is gone. Strange that grief should now almost choke me, because another human being's eye has failed to greet mine."
That Sunday evening, Mr. Malone coming, as usual, to pass it with his rector, Caroline withdrew after tea to her chamber. Fanny, knowing her habits, had lit her a cheerful little fire, as the weather was so gusty and chill. Closeted there, silent and solitary, what could she do but think? She noiselessly paced to and fro the carpeted floor, her head drooped, her hands folded. It was irksome to sit; the current of reflection ran rapidly through her mind; to-night she was mutely excited.
Mute was the room, mute the house. The double door of the study muffled the voices of the gentlemen. The servants were quiet in the kitchen, engaged with books their young mistress had lent them—books which she had told them were "fit for Sunday reading." And she herself had another of the same sort open on the table, but she could not read it. Its theology was incomprehensible to her, and her own mind was too busy, teeming, wandering, to listen to the language of another mind.
Then, too, her imagination was full of pictures—images of Moore, scenes where he and she had been together; winter fireside sketches; a glowing landscape of a hot summer afternoon passed with him in the bosom of Nunnely Wood; divine vignettes of mild spring or mellow autumn moments, when she had sat at his side in Hollow's Copse, listening to the call of the May cuckoo, or sharing the September treasure of nuts and ripe blackberries—a wild dessert which it was her morning's pleasure to collect in a little basket, and cover with green leaves and fresh blossoms, and her afternoon's delight to administer to Moore, berry by berry, and nut by nut, like a bird feeding its fledgling.
Robert's features and form were with her; the sound of his voice was quite distinct in her ear; his few caresses seemed renewed. But these joys, being hollow, were, ere long, crushed in. The pictures faded, the voice failed, the visionary clasp melted chill from her hand, and where the warm seal of lips had made impress on her forehead, it felt now as if a sleety rain-drop had fallen. She returned from an enchanted region to the real world: for Nunnely Wood in June she saw her narrow chamber; for the songs of birds in alleys she heard the rain on her casement; for the sigh of the south wind came the sob of the mournful east; and for Moore's manly companionship she had the thin illusion of her own dim shadow on the wall. Turning from the pale phantom which reflected herself in its outline, and her reverie in the drooped attitude of its dim head and colourless tresses, she sat down—inaction would suit the frame of mind into which she was now declining—she said to herself, "I have to live, perhaps, till seventy years. As far as I know, I have good health; half a century of existence may lie before me. How am I to occupy it? What am I to do to fill the interval of time which spreads between me and the grave?"
"I shall not be married, it appears," she continued. "I suppose, as Robert does not care for me, I shall never have a husband to love, nor little children to take care of. Till lately I had reckoned securely on the duties and affections of wife and mother to occupy my existence. I considered, somehow, as a matter of course, that I was growing up to the ordinary destiny, and never troubled myself to seek any other; but now I perceive plainly I may have been mistaken. Probably I shall be an old maid. I shall live to see Robert married to some one else, some rich lady. I shall never marry. What was I created for, I wonder? Where is my place in the world?"
She mused again.
"Ah! I see," she pursued presently; "that is the question which most old maids are puzzled to solve. Other people solve it for them by saying, 'Your place is to do good to others, to be helpful whenever help is wanted.' That is right in some measure, and a very convenient doctrine for the people who hold it; but I perceive that certain sets of human beings are very apt to maintain that other sets should give up their lives to them and their service, and then they requite them by praise; they call them devoted and virtuous. Is this enough? Is it to live? Is there not a terrible hollowness, mockery, want, craving, in that existence which is given away to others, for want of something of your own to bestow it on? I suspect there is. Does virtue lie in abnegation of self? I do not believe it. Undue humility makes tyranny; weak concession creates selfishness. The Romish religion especially teaches renunciation of self, submission to others, and nowhere are found so many grasping tyrants as in the ranks of the Romish priesthood. Each human being has his share of rights. I suspect it would conduce to the happiness and welfare of all if each knew his allotment, and held to it as tenaciously as the martyr to his creed. Queer thoughts these that surge in my mind. Are they right thoughts? I am not certain.
"Well, life is short at the best. Seventy years, they say, pass like a vapour, like a dream when one awaketh; and every path trod by human feet terminates in one bourne—the grave, the little chink in the surface of this great globe, the furrow where the mighty husbandman with the scythe deposits the seed he has shaken from the ripe stem; and there it falls, decays, and thence it springs again, when the world has rolled round a few times more. So much for the body. The soul meantime wings its long flight upward, folds its wings on the brink of the sea of fire and glass, and gazing down through the burning clearness, finds there mirrored the vision of the Christian's triple Godhead—the sovereign Father, the mediating Son, the Creator Spirit. Such words, at least, have been chosen to express what is inexpressible, to describe what baffles description. The soul's real hereafter who shall guess?"
Her fire was decayed to its last cinder; Malone had departed; and now the study bell rang for prayers.
The next day Caroline had to spend altogether alone, her uncle being gone to dine with his friend Dr. Boultby, vicar of Whinbury. The whole time she was talking inwardly in the same strain—looking forwards, asking what she was to do with life. Fanny, as she passed in and out of the room occasionally, intent on housemaid errands, perceived that her young mistress sat very still. She was always in the same place, always bent industriously over a piece of work. She did not lift her head to speak to Fanny, as her custom was; and when the latter remarked that the day was fine, and she ought to take a walk, she only said, "It is cold."
"You are very diligent at that sewing, Miss Caroline," continued the girl, approaching her little table.
"I am tired of it, Fanny."
"Then why do you go on with it? Put it down. Read, or do something to amuse you."
"It is solitary in this house, Fanny. Don't you think so?"
"I don't find it so, miss. Me and Eliza are company for one another; but you are quite too still. You should visit more. Now, be persuaded: go upstairs and dress yourself smart, and go and take tea, in a friendly way, with Miss Mann or Miss Ainley. I am certain either of those ladies would be delighted to see you."
"But their houses are dismal: they are both old maids. I am certain old maids are a very unhappy race."
"Not they, miss. They can't be unhappy; they take such care of themselves. They are all selfish."
"Miss Ainley is not selfish, Fanny. She is always doing good. How devotedly kind she was to her step-mother as long as the old lady lived; and now when she is quite alone in the world, without brother or sister, or any one to care for her, how charitable she is to the poor, as far as her means permit! Still nobody thinks much of her, or has pleasure in going to see her; and how gentlemen always sneer at her!"
"They shouldn't, miss. I believe she is a good woman. But gentlemen think only of ladies' looks."
"I'll go and see her," exclaimed Caroline, starting up; "and if she asks me to stay to tea, I'll stay. How wrong it is to neglect people because they are not pretty, and young, and merry! And I will certainly call to see Miss Mann too. She may not be amiable, but what has made her unamiable? What has life been to her?"
Fanny helped Miss Helstone to put away her work, and afterwards assisted her to dress.
"You'll not be an old maid, Miss Caroline," she said, as she tied the sash of her brown silk frock, having previously smoothed her soft, full, and shining curls; "there are no signs of an old maid about you."
Caroline looked at the little mirror before her, and she thought there were some signs. She could see that she was altered within the last month; that the hues of her complexion were paler, her eyes changed—a wan shade seemed to circle them; her countenance was dejected—she was not, in short, so pretty or so fresh as she used to be. She distantly hinted this to Fanny, from whom she got no direct answer, only a remark that people did vary in their looks, but that at her age a little falling away signified nothing; she would soon come round again, and be plumper and rosier than ever. Having given this assurance, Fanny showed singular zeal in wrapping her up in warm shawls and handkerchiefs, till Caroline, nearly smothered with the weight, was fain to resist further additions.
She paid her visits—first to Miss Mann, for this was the most difficult point. Miss Mann was certainly not quite a lovable person. Till now, Caroline had always unhesitatingly declared she disliked her, and more than once she had joined her cousin Robert in laughing at some of her peculiarities. Moore was not habitually given to sarcasm, especially on anything humbler or weaker than himself; but he had once or twice happened to be in the room when Miss Mann had made a call on his sister, and after listening to her conversation and viewing her features for a time, he had gone out into the garden where his little cousin was tending some of his favourite flowers, and while standing near and watching her he had amused himself with comparing fair youth, delicate and attractive, with shrivelled eld, livid and loveless, and in jestingly repeating to a smiling girl the vinegar discourse of a cankered old maid. Once on such an occasion Caroline had said to him, looking up from the luxuriant creeper she was binding to its frame, "Ah! Robert, you do not like old maids. I, too, should come under the lash of your sarcasm if I were an old maid."
"You an old maid!" he had replied. "A piquant notion suggested by lips of that tint and form. I can fancy you, though, at forty, quietly dressed, pale and sunk, but still with that straight nose, white forehead, and those soft eyes. I suppose, too, you will keep your voice, which has another 'timbre' than that hard, deep organ of Miss Mann's. Courage, Cary! Even at fifty you will not be repulsive."
"Miss Mann did not make herself, or tune her voice, Robert."
"Nature made her in the mood in which she makes her briars and thorns; whereas for the creation of some women she reserves the May morning hours, when with light and dew she wooes the primrose from the turf and the lily from the wood-moss."
* * * * *
Ushered into Miss Mann's little parlour, Caroline found her, as she always found her, surrounded by perfect neatness, cleanliness, and comfort (after all, is it not a virtue in old maids that solitude rarely makes them negligent or disorderly?)—no dust on her polished furniture, none on her carpet, fresh flowers in the vase on her table, a bright fire in the grate. She herself sat primly and somewhat grimly-tidy in a cushioned rocking-chair, her hands busied with some knitting. This was her favourite work, as it required the least exertion. She scarcely rose as Caroline entered. To avoid excitement was one of Miss Mann's aims in life. She had been composing herself ever since she came down in the morning, and had just attained a certain lethargic state of tranquillity when the visitor's knock at the door startled her, and undid her day's work. She was scarcely pleased, therefore, to see Miss Helstone. She received her with reserve, bade her be seated with austerity, and when she got her placed opposite, she fixed her with her eye.
This was no ordinary doom—to be fixed with Miss Mann's eye. Robert Moore had undergone it once, and had never forgotten the circumstance.
He considered it quite equal to anything Medusa could do. He professed to doubt whether, since that infliction, his flesh had been quite what it was before—whether there was not something stony in its texture. The gaze had had such an effect on him as to drive him promptly from the apartment and house; it had even sent him straightway up to the rectory, where he had appeared in Caroline's presence with a very queer face, and amazed her by demanding a cousinly salute on the spot, to rectify a damage that had been done him.
Certainly Miss Mann had a formidable eye for one of the softer sex. It was prominent, and showed a great deal of the white, and looked as steadily, as unwinkingly, at you as if it were a steel ball soldered in her head; and when, while looking, she began to talk in an indescribably dry, monotonous tone—a tone without vibration or inflection—you felt as if a graven image of some bad spirit were addressing you. But it was all a figment of fancy, a matter of surface. Miss Mann's goblin grimness scarcely went deeper than the angel sweetness of hundreds of beauties. She was a perfectly honest, conscientious woman, who had performed duties in her day from whose severe anguish many a human Peri, gazelle-eyed, silken-tressed, and silver-tongued, would have shrunk appalled. She had passed alone through protracted scenes of suffering, exercised rigid self-denial, made large sacrifices of time, money, health for those who had repaid her only by ingratitude, and now her main—almost her sole—fault was that she was censorious.
Censorious she certainly was. Caroline had not sat five minutes ere her hostess, still keeping her under the spell of that dread and Gorgon gaze, began flaying alive certain of the families in the neighbourhood. She went to work at this business in a singularly cool, deliberate manner, like some surgeon practising with his scalpel on a lifeless subject. She made few distinctions; she allowed scarcely any one to be good; she dissected impartially almost all her acquaintance. If her auditress ventured now and then to put in a palliative word she set it aside with a certain disdain. Still, though thus pitiless in moral anatomy, she was no scandal-monger. She never disseminated really malignant or dangerous reports. It was not her heart so much as her temper that was wrong.
Caroline made this discovery for the first time to-day, and moved thereby to regret divers unjust judgments she had more than once passed on the crabbed old maid, she began to talk to her softly, not in sympathizing words, but with a sympathizing voice. The loneliness of her condition struck her visitor in a new light, as did also the character of her ugliness—a bloodless pallor of complexion, and deeply worn lines of feature. The girl pitied the solitary and afflicted woman; her looks told what she felt. A sweet countenance is never so sweet as when the moved heart animates it with compassionate tenderness. Miss Mann, seeing such a countenance raised to her, was touched in her turn. She acknowledged her sense of the interest thus unexpectedly shown in her, who usually met with only coldness and ridicule, by replying to her candidly. Communicative on her own affairs she usually was not, because no one cared to listen to her; but to-day she became so, and her confidante shed tears as she heard her speak, for she told of cruel, slow-wasting, obstinate sufferings. Well might she be corpse-like; well might she look grim, and never smile; well might she wish to avoid excitement, to gain and retain composure! Caroline, when she knew all, acknowledged that Miss Mann was rather to be admired for fortitude than blamed for moroseness. Reader! when you behold an aspect for whose constant gloom and frown you cannot account, whose unvarying cloud exasperates you by its apparent causelessness, be sure that there is a canker somewhere, and a canker not the less deeply corroding because concealed.
Miss Mann felt that she was understood partly, and wished to be understood further; for, however old, plain, humble, desolate, afflicted we may be, so long as our hearts preserve the feeblest spark of life, they preserve also, shivering near that pale ember, a starved, ghostly longing for appreciation and affection. To this extenuated spectre, perhaps, a crumb is not thrown once a year, but when ahungered and athirst to famine—when all humanity has forgotten the dying tenant of a decaying house—Divine mercy remembers the mourner, and a shower of manna falls for lips that earthly nutriment is to pass no more. Biblical promises, heard first in health, but then unheeded, come whispering to the couch of sickness; it is felt that a pitying God watches what all mankind have forsaken. The tender compassion of Jesus is recalled and relied on; the faded eye, gazing beyond time, sees a home, a friend, a refuge in eternity.
Miss Mann, drawn on by the still attention of her listener, proceeded to allude to circumstances in her past life. She spoke like one who tells the truth—simply, and with a certain reserve; she did not boast, nor did she exaggerate. Caroline found that the old maid had been a most devoted daughter and sister, an unwearied watcher by lingering deathbeds; that to prolonged and unrelaxing attendance on the sick the malady that now poisoned her own life owed its origin; that to one wretched relative she had been a support and succour in the depths of self-earned degradation, and that it was still her hand which kept him from utter destitution. Miss Helstone stayed the whole evening, omitting to pay her other intended visit; and when she left Miss Mann it was with the determination to try in future to excuse her faults; never again to make light of her peculiarities or to laugh at her plainness; and, above all things, not to neglect her, but to come once a week, and to offer her, from one human heart at least, the homage of affection and respect. She felt she could now sincerely give her a small tribute of each feeling.
Caroline, on her return, told Fanny she was very glad she had gone out, as she felt much better for the visit. The next day she failed not to seek Miss Ainley. This lady was in narrower circumstances than Miss Mann, and her dwelling was more humble. It was, however, if possible, yet more exquisitely clean, though the decayed gentlewoman could not afford to keep a servant, but waited on herself, and had only the occasional assistance of a little girl who lived in a cottage near.
Not only was Miss Ainley poorer, but she was even plainer than the other old maid. In her first youth she must have been ugly; now, at the age of fifty, she was very ugly. At first sight, all but peculiarly well-disciplined minds were apt to turn from her with annoyance, to conceive against her a prejudice, simply on the ground of her unattractive look. Then she was prim in dress and manner; she looked, spoke, and moved the complete old maid.
Her welcome to Caroline was formal, even in its kindness—for it was kind; but Miss Helstone excused this. She knew something of the benevolence of the heart which beat under that starched kerchief; all the neighbourhood—at least all the female neighbourhood—knew something of it. No one spoke against Miss Ainley except lively young gentlemen and inconsiderate old ones, who declared her hideous.
Caroline was soon at home in that tiny parlour. A kind hand took from her her shawl and bonnet, and installed her in the most comfortable seat near the fire. The young and the antiquated woman were presently deep in kindly conversation, and soon Caroline became aware of the power a most serene, unselfish, and benignant mind could exercise over those to whom it was developed. She talked never of herself, always of others. Their faults she passed over. Her theme was their wants, which she sought to supply; their sufferings, which she longed to alleviate. She was religious, a professor of religion—what some would call "a saint;" and she referred to religion often in sanctioned phrase—in phrase which those who possess a perception of the ridiculous, without owning the power of exactly testing and truly judging character, would certainly have esteemed a proper subject for satire, a matter for mimicry and laughter. They would have been hugely mistaken for their pains. Sincerity is never ludicrous; it is always respectable. Whether truth—be it religious or moral truth—speak eloquently and in well-chosen language or not, its voice should be heard with reverence. Let those who cannot nicely, and with certainty, discern the difference between the tones of hypocrisy and those of sincerity, never presume to laugh at all, lest they should have the miserable misfortune to laugh in the wrong place, and commit impiety when they think they are achieving wit.
Not from Miss Ainley's own lips did Caroline hear of her good works, but she knew much of them nevertheless. Her beneficence was the familiar topic of the poor in Briarfield. They were not works of almsgiving. The old maid was too poor to give much, though she straitened herself to privation that she might contribute her mite when needful. They were the works of a Sister of Charity—far more difficult to perform than those of a Lady Bountiful. She would watch by any sick-bed; she seemed to fear no disease. She would nurse the poorest whom none else would nurse. She was serene, humble, kind, and equable through everything.
For this goodness she got but little reward in this life. Many of the poor became so accustomed to her services that they hardly thanked her for them. The rich heard them mentioned with wonder, but were silent, from a sense of shame at the difference between her sacrifices and their own. Many ladies, however, respected her deeply. They could not help it. One gentleman—one only—gave her his friendship and perfect confidence. This was Mr. Hall, the vicar of Nunnely. He said, and said truly, that her life came nearer the life of Christ than that of any other human being he had ever met with. You must not think, reader, that ill sketching Miss Ainley's character I depict a figment of imagination. No. We seek the originals of such portraits in real life only.
Miss Helstone studied well the mind and heart now revealed to her. She found no high intellect to admire—the old maid was merely sensible—but she discovered so much goodness, so much usefulness, so much mildness, patience, truth, that she bent her own mind before Miss Ainley's in reverence. What was her love of nature, what was her sense of beauty, what were her more varied and fervent emotions, what was her deeper power of thought, what her wider capacity to comprehend, compared to the practical excellence of this good woman? Momently, they seemed only beautiful forms of selfish delight; mentally, she trod them under foot.
It is true she still felt with pain that the life which made Miss Ainley happy could not make her happy. Pure and active as it was, in her heart she deemed it deeply dreary, because it was so loveless—to her ideas, so forlorn. Yet, doubtless, she reflected, it needed only habit to make it practicable and agreeable to any one. It was despicable, she felt, to pine sentimentally, to cherish secret griefs, vain memories, to be inert, to waste youth in aching languor, to grow old doing nothing.
"I will bestir myself," was her resolution, "and try to be wise if I cannot be good."
She proceeded to make inquiry of Miss Ainley if she could help her in anything. Miss Ainley, glad of an assistant, told her that she could, and indicated some poor families in Briarfield that it was desirable she should visit, giving her likewise, at her further request, some work to do for certain poor women who had many children, and who were unskilled in using the needle for themselves.
Caroline went home, laid her plans, and took a resolve not to swerve from them. She allotted a certain portion of her time for her various studies, and a certain portion for doing anything Miss Ainley might direct her to do. The remainder was to be spent in exercise; not a moment was to be left for the indulgence of such fevered thoughts as had poisoned last Sunday evening.
To do her justice, she executed her plans conscientiously, perseveringly. It was very hard work at first—it was even hard work to the end—but it helped her to stem and keep down anguish; it forced her to be employed; it forbade her to brood; and gleams of satisfaction chequered her gray life here and there when she found she had done good, imparted pleasure, or allayed suffering.
Yet I must speak truth. These efforts brought her neither health of body nor continued peace of mind. With them all she wasted, grew more joyless and more wan; with them all her memory kept harping on the name of Robert Moore; an elegy over the past still rung constantly in her ear; a funereal inward cry haunted and harassed her; the heaviness of a broken spirit, and of pining and palsying faculties, settled slow on her buoyant youth. Winter seemed conquering her spring; the mind's soil and its treasures were freezing gradually to barren stagnation.
Yet Caroline refused tamely to succumb. She had native strength in her girl's heart, and she used it. Men and women never struggle so hard as when they struggle alone, without witness, counsellor, or confidant, unencouraged, unadvised, and unpitied.
Miss Helstone was in this position. Her sufferings were her only spur, and being very real and sharp, they roused her spirit keenly. Bent on victory over a mortal pain, she did her best to quell it. Never had she been seen so busy, so studious, and, above all, so active. She took walks in all weathers, long walks in solitary directions. Day by day she came back in the evening, pale and wearied-looking, yet seemingly not fatigued; for still, as soon as she had thrown off her bonnet and shawl, she would, instead of resting, begin to pace her apartment. Sometimes she would not sit down till she was literally faint. She said she did this to tire herself well, that she might sleep soundly at night. But if that was her aim it was unattained; for at night, when others slumbered, she was tossing on her pillow, or sitting at the foot of her couch in the darkness, forgetful, apparently, of the necessity of seeking repose. Often, unhappy girl! she was crying—crying in a sort of intolerable despair, which, when it rushed over her, smote down her strength, and reduced her to childlike helplessness.
When thus prostrate, temptations besieged her. Weak suggestions whispered in her weary heart to write to Robert, and say that she was unhappy because she was forbidden to see him and Hortense, and that she feared he would withdraw his friendship (not love) from her, and forget her entirely, and begging him to remember her, and sometimes to write to her. One or two such letters she actually indited, but she never sent them: shame and good sense forbade.
At last the life she led reached the point when it seemed she could bear it no longer, that she must seek and find a change somehow, or her heart and head would fail under the pressure which strained them. She longed to leave Briarfield, to go to some very distant place. She longed for something else—the deep, secret, anxious yearning to discover and know her mother strengthened daily; but with the desire was coupled a doubt, a dread—if she knew her, could she love her? There was cause for hesitation, for apprehension on this point. Never in her life had she heard that mother praised; whoever mentioned her mentioned her coolly. Her uncle seemed to regard his sister-in-law with a sort of tacit antipathy; an old servant, who had lived with Mrs. James Helstone for a short time after her marriage, whenever she referred to her former mistress, spoke with chilling reserve—sometimes she called her "queer," sometimes she said she did not understand her. These expressions were ice to the daughter's heart; they suggested the conclusion that it was perhaps better never to know her parent than to know her and not like her.
But one project could she frame whose execution seemed likely to bring her a hope of relief: it was to take a situation, to be a governess; she could do nothing else. A little incident brought her to the point, when she found courage to break her design to her uncle.
Her long and late walks lay always, as has been said, on lonely roads; but in whatever direction she had rambled—whether along the drear skirts of Stilbro' Moor or over the sunny stretch of Nunnely Common—her homeward path was still so contrived as to lead her near the Hollow. She rarely descended the den, but she visited its brink at twilight almost as regularly as the stars rose over the hillcrests. Her resting-place was at a certain stile under a certain old thorn. Thence she could look down on the cottage, the mill, the dewy garden-ground, the still, deep dam; thence was visible the well-known counting-house window, from whose panes at a fixed hour shot, suddenly bright, the ray of the well-known lamp. Her errand was to watch for this ray, her reward to catch it, sometimes sparkling bright in clear air, sometimes shimmering dim through mist, and anon flashing broken between slant lines of rain—for she came in all weathers.
There were nights when it failed to appear. She knew then that Robert was from home, and went away doubly sad; whereas its kindling rendered her elate, as though she saw in it the promise of some indefinite hope. If, while she gazed, a shadow bent between the light and lattice, her heart leaped. That eclipse was Robert; she had seen him. She would return home comforted, carrying in her mind a clearer vision of his aspect, a distincter recollection of his voice, his smile, his bearing; and blent with these impressions was often a sweet persuasion that, if she could get near him, his heart might welcome her presence yet, that at this moment he might be willing to extend his hand and draw her to him, and shelter her at his side as he used to do. That night, though she might weep as usual, she would fancy her tears less scalding; the pillow they watered seemed a little softer; the temples pressed to that pillow ached less.
The shortest path from the Hollow to the rectory wound near a certain mansion, the same under whose lone walls Malone passed on that night-journey mentioned in an early chapter of this work—the old and tenantless dwelling yclept Fieldhead. Tenantless by the proprietor it had been for ten years, but it was no ruin. Mr. Yorke had seen it kept in good repair, and an old gardener and his wife had lived in it, cultivated the grounds, and maintained the house in habitable condition.
If Fieldhead had few other merits as a building, it might at least be termed picturesque. Its regular architecture, and the gray and mossy colouring communicated by time, gave it a just claim to this epithet. The old latticed windows, the stone porch, the walls, the roof, the chimney-stacks, were rich in crayon touches and sepia lights and shades. The trees behind were fine, bold, and spreading; the cedar on the lawn in front was grand; and the granite urns on the garden wall, the fretted arch of the gateway, were, for an artist, as the very desire of the eye.
One mild May evening Caroline, passing near about moonrise, and feeling, though weary, unwilling yet to go home, where there was only the bed of thorns and the night of grief to anticipate, sat down on the mossy ground near the gate, and gazed through towards cedar and mansion. It was a still night—calm, dewy, cloudless; the gables, turned to the west, reflected the clear amber of the horizon they faced; the oaks behind were black; the cedar was blacker. Under its dense, raven boughs a glimpse of sky opened gravely blue. It was full of the moon, which looked solemnly and mildly down on Caroline from beneath that sombre canopy.
She felt this night and prospect mournfully lovely. She wished she could be happy; she wished she could know inward peace; she wondered Providence had no pity on her, and would not help or console her. Recollections of happy trysts of lovers, commemorated in old ballads, returned on her mind; she thought such tryst in such scene would be blissful. Where now was Robert? she asked. Not at the Hollow; she had watched for his lamp long, and had not seen it. She questioned within herself whether she and Moore were ever destined to meet and speak again. Suddenly the door within the stone porch of the hall opened, and two men came out—one elderly and white-headed, the other young, dark-haired, and tall. They passed across the lawn, out through a portal in the garden wall. Caroline saw them cross the road, pass the stile, descend the fields; she saw them disappear. Robert Moore had passed before her with his friend Mr. Yorke. Neither had seen her.
The apparition had been transient—scarce seen ere gone; but its electric passage left her veins kindled, her soul insurgent. It found her despairing, it left her desperate—two different states.
"Oh, had he but been alone! had he but seen me!" was her cry. "He would have said something. He would have given me his hand. He does, he must, love me a little. He would have shown some token of affection. In his eye, on his lips, I should have read comfort; but the chance is lost. The wind, the cloud's shadow, does not pass more silently, more emptily than he. I have been mocked, and Heaven is cruel!"
Thus, in the utter sickness of longing and disappointment, she went home.
The next morning at breakfast, where she appeared white-cheeked and miserable-looking as one who had seen a ghost, she inquired of Mr. Helstone, "Have you any objection, uncle, to my inquiring for a situation in a family?"
Her uncle, ignorant as the table supporting his coffee-cup of all his niece had undergone and was undergoing, scarcely believed his ears.
"What whim now?" he asked. "Are you bewitched? What can you mean?"
"I am not well, and need a change," she said.
He examined her. He discovered she had experienced a change, at any rate. Without his being aware of it, the rose had dwindled and faded to a mere snowdrop; bloom had vanished, flesh wasted; she sat before him drooping, colourless, and thin. But for the soft expression of her brown eyes, the delicate lines of her features, and the flowing abundance of her hair, she would no longer have possessed a claim to the epithet pretty.
"What on earth is the matter with you?" he asked. "What is wrong? How are you ailing?"
No answer; only the brown eyes filled, the faintly-tinted lips trembled.
"Look out for a situation, indeed! For what situation are you fit? What have you been doing with yourself? You are not well."
"I should be well if I went from home."
"These women are incomprehensible. They have the strangest knack of startling you with unpleasant surprises. To-day you see them bouncing, buxom, red as cherries, and round as apples; to-morrow they exhibit themselves effete as dead weeds, blanched and broken down. And the reason of it all? That's the puzzle. She has her meals, her liberty, a good house to live in, and good clothes to wear, as usual. A while since that sufficed to keep her handsome and cheery, and there she sits now a poor, little, pale, puling chit enough. Provoking! Then comes the question, What is to be done? I suppose I must send for advice. Will you have a doctor, child?"
"No, uncle, I don't want one. A doctor could do me no good. I merely want change of air and scene."
"Well, if that be the caprice, it shall be gratified. You shall go to a watering-place. I don't mind the expense. Fanny shall accompany you."
"But, uncle, some day I must do something for myself; I have no fortune. I had better begin now."
"While I live, you shall not turn out as a governess, Caroline. I will not have it said that my niece is a governess."
"But the later in life one makes a change of that sort, uncle, the more difficult and painful it is. I should wish to get accustomed to the yoke before any habits of ease and independence are formed."
"I beg you will not harass me, Caroline. I mean to provide for you. I have always meant to provide for you. I will purchase an annuity. Bless me! I am but fifty-five; my health and constitution are excellent. There is plenty of time to save and take measures. Don't make yourself anxious respecting the future. Is that what frets you?"
"No, uncle; but I long for a change."
He laughed. "There speaks the woman!" cried he, "the very woman! A change! a change! Always fantastical and whimsical! Well, it's in her sex."
"But it is not fantasy and whim, uncle."
"What is it then?"
"Necessity, I think. I feel weaker than formerly. I believe I should have more to do."
"Admirable! She feels weak, and therefore she should be set to hard labour—'clair comme le jour,' as Moore—confound Moore! You shall go to Cliff Bridge; and there are two guineas to buy a new frock. Come, Cary, never fear. We'll find balm in Gilead."
"Uncle, I wish you were less generous and more——"
Sympathizing was the word on Caroline's lips, but it was not uttered. She checked herself in time. Her uncle would indeed have laughed if that namby-pamby word had escaped her. Finding her silent, he said, "The fact is, you don't know precisely what you want."
"Only to be a governess."
"Pooh! mere nonsense! I'll not hear of governessing. Don't mention it again. It is rather too feminine a fancy. I have finished breakfast. Ring the bell. Put all crotchets out of your head, and run away and amuse yourself."
"What with? My doll?" asked Caroline to herself as she quitted the room.
A week or two passed; her bodily and mental health neither grew worse nor better. She was now precisely in that state when, if her constitution had contained the seeds of consumption, decline, or slow fever, those diseases would have been rapidly developed, and would soon have carried her quietly from the world. People never die of love or grief alone, though some die of inherent maladies which the tortures of those passions prematurely force into destructive action. The sound by nature undergo these tortures, and are racked, shaken, shattered; their beauty and bloom perish, but life remains untouched. They are brought to a certain point of dilapidation; they are reduced to pallor, debility, and emaciation. People think, as they see them gliding languidly about, that they will soon withdraw to sick-beds, perish there, and cease from among the healthy and happy. This does not happen. They live on; and though they cannot regain youth and gaiety, they may regain strength and serenity. The blossom which the March wind nips, but fails to sweep away, may survive to hang a withered apple on the tree late into autumn: having braved the last frosts of spring, it may also brave the first of winter.
Every one noticed the change in Miss Helstone's appearance, and most people said she was going to die. She never thought so herself. She felt in no dying case; she had neither pain nor sickness. Her appetite was diminished; she knew the reason. It was because she wept so much at night. Her strength was lessened; she could account for it. Sleep was coy and hard to be won; dreams were distressing and baleful. In the far future she still seemed to anticipate a time when this passage of misery should be got over, and when she should once more be calm, though perhaps never again happy.